Women’s ski jumpers blazing a trail at Sochi Olympics

Lindsey Van does not consider herself a pioneer, but she can tell stories from the bad old backward days when women’s ski jumping was considered a radical, perilous stunt rather than a legitimate sport.

Flying women? It was as alien a concept as voting women were in the 1800s.

“I had plenty of people ask me if my uterus had fallen out,” Van said. “They decided ski jumping was medically unsafe for the female anatomy.”

Van lobbied for years to include women’s ski jumping in the Winter Olympics. She and her fellow jumpers took their case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where they were rejected again before the 2010 Games.

“The main excuse we heard was that we weren’t good enough,” she said.

Truth is, women are nearly as good as men in a sport that requires more finesse than brawn. Perhaps the threat of gender equity spooked the Olympic hierarchy more than the fear of a woman crashing like the male skier in the Agony of Defeat clip from ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

When Van stands at the top of the towering RusSki Gorki jump Tuesday, she will finally know she made it to the Olympics. When she accelerates down the ramp at 60 mph and sails the length of a football field, the world will finally know that women are as capable of flight as men.

It will be a historic night for 30 athletes from 12 countries.

“I feel more relieved than I thought I would,” Van said. “It’s the first time in a long time I can feel like I’m in the present moment. There’s nothing to wait for anymore.”

Van, 29, has been jumping since she was 7 years old, when she started practicing with boys in Park City, Utah. She won the inaugural women’s world championship in 2009.

She used to coach young Sarah Hendrickson and give her piggyback rides.

“Now Sarah is kicking my butt,” Van said.

Hendrickson, 19, the defending world champion, was considered the skier to beat for the Olympic gold medal until she blew out her knee in August. She didn’t return to snow training until Jan. 11. In what was the much ballyhooed “Battle of the Sara(h)s,” Japan’s 5-foot, 17-year-old sensation Sara Takanashi is now the favorite.

“My coaches remind me it’s a miracle I’m even in Russia,” Hendrickson said after Sunday’s practice. “I’ve had 20 jumps where most others have had 200-300 this season. I’ve accepted being an underdog. It takes some pressure off. The Olympics is our one day to shine, and it’s definitely an honor just to be here.”

Takanashi is from the town of Kamikawa on the island of Hokkaido, also home to Japan’s 1998 ski jumping hero Masahiko Harada. Takanashi, followed by dozens of Japanese media members, made two 101-meter jumps on Monday to lead training.

She will be challenged by Austria’s Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, who, along with Van, Norway’s Anette Sagen and the U.S. team’s Jessica Jerome, was in the forefront of the push to get the sport into the Olympics. Iraschko-Stolz, who is married to her partner, is one of the few openly gay athletes at the Games, and said she hopes to make a statement about Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” law with her performance.

“Every day I need to wake up 10 times to believe I’m at the Olympics,” she said.

For the trailblazers, ski jumping was a passion that often challenged their will and bank accounts. Finding sites in Europe that would sanction women’s competition and weren’t dilapidated was difficult.

“Most of the jumps we used were pretty sketchy until five years ago,” Van said.

There was no money from the U.S. Ski Team, which today supplies funding for the top athletes. The women stayed in hostels or on the couches of their host opponents and once in the hay loft of a barn full of cows.

“No heat, of course,” Van said. “We could only afford to rent one van so we’d stuff it full of gear and food and lie on top of our bags.”

Van has worked as a dog walker and cleaning lady to make ends meet.

Hendrickson’s mother sewed jumpsuits for the team. Other parents held auctions, barbeques and bake sales.

Jerome started jumping at age seven in Park City. At 14 she became the only girl to score points in a men’s Continental Cup competition. Her parents, Peter and Barbara Jerome, were instrumental in the movement to advance the sport. They bought a “Nonprofits for Dummies” book and started the foundation that became Women’s Ski Jumping USA, which today funds the No. 1 team in the world. The credibility and visibility that comes with the Olympics has won new sponsors to join Visa and elevated prize money on the World Cup circuit.

“It’s still kind of a mom-and-pop operation,” said Whitney Childers, communications and media director for the organization. “It’s a pretty good Cinderella story.”

Peter Jerome said he wanted to support his daughter.

“She’s always been an edgy girl who gets along very well in a man’s world,” he said. “I’m proud of the persistence of these women.”

Jerome, a Delta pilot, has taken Jessica and other jumpers up in a glider and allowed them to take the controls.

“It’s a tactile, sensual thing and they have a knack for flying it – how to feel what the plane is doing and go with it,” he said.

The ability to fly like a bird requires more technique than muscle. Jumpers ski down an icy track then, in a tenth of second, launch off a platform, arch over their wide, wing-like skis arrayed in a V for maximum air time before landing in a telemark position. Judges award points for style and distance. Wiry, slender body types are ideal, which led to eating disorders among men and women, prompting the international federation to implement body mass index minimums that penalize unhealthily skinny skiers by reducing the length of their skis.

Women start at a higher bar than men to gain more speed because they are lighter. At the Olympics, they will be limited to one event – the normal hill – while men, jumping in the Olympics since 1924, compete in normal, large and team.

“We jump large hills but at the Olympics we’re taking baby steps and hope in the future to have three events,” said Jerome, 10-time national champ whose personal best is 138 meters.

Van once jumped 171 meters when she talked her way into a men’s ski flying competition.

Burned out by the disappointment of not getting in for the 2010 Games, Van stopped jumping, but resumed in time to make the 2014 team. She’s ready to kiss the sky in front of the largest audience of her career.

“A lot of the bitterness has gone away,” she said. “It’s taken us 90 years to get here. Being here is history.”

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